Project Puts Numbers to Frack Debate
Group studies health effects in Pennsylvania
26 August 2013
PITTSBURGH — A project examining the local health effects from
natural gas drilling is providing some of the first preliminary
numbers about people who may be affected.
The results challenge the industry position that no one suffers
but also suggest the problems may not be as widespread as some
The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project has been
trying to help people who feel they’ve been sickened by natural
gas drilling or processing for about 18 months in one county south
The work is potentially important because it’s one of the first
long-term attempts to monitor drilling-related health impacts, and
it could help other groups identify possible symptoms.
The project found 27 cases where people in Washington County
believe they were hurt by nearby drilling — seven cases of skin
rashes, four of eye irritation, 13 of breathing problems and three
of headaches and dizziness. The skin exposures were from water and
the other cases were from air. The numbers don’t represent a full
survey of the area, just cases so far with plausible exposures.
The EHP group is trying to help those who have been exposed to
drilling-related air or water pollution, toxicologist David Brown
told The Associated Press, adding that they’re finding “an array
of symptoms” in some people who live close to either wells or
There are some surprises: Air pollution seems to be more of a
threat than water pollution, and the huge processing stations that
push gas into national pipelines may be more of a problem than the
drilling sites themselves. The processing stations can handle
large volumes of gas from hundreds of wells.
Washington County has a population of about 200,000, and about 700
natural gas wells have been drilled there in the past six years.
It’s also home to large gas processing operations.
Some experts not involved with the findings praised the general
program but said the debate over fracking and health often
neglects a crucial point.
“There’s a strong case that people in the U.S. are already leading
longer lives as a consequence of the fracking revolution,” said
Michael Greenstone, a professor of environmental economics at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That’s because many power
plants have stopped burning coal and switched to natural gas,
which emits far less fine soot, nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide.
“Obviously, that has to be counterbalanced against the local
effects of the drilling,” and that makes for a complicated
decision, said Greenstone, formerly one of President Barack
Obama’s chief economic advisers. Obama has expressed strong
support for the natural gas drilling boom and has said it can be
Greenstone said more work needs to be done to confirm that
Washington County residents were affected by natural gas activity
and not by other factors, but he called the project an “important
The EHP group only counted cases where symptoms began after
natural gas activity started, where there was a plausible source
of exposure and where the individual didn’t have an underlying
medical condition that was likely to have caused the symptoms.
Brown said the project team is aware that more work needs to be
done on links between natural gas activities and health impacts.
He said the work has been “a lot harder than I thought it was
going to be,” but they’ve made substantial progress.